Sunday, May 3, 2009

Philip Johnson Glass House

New Canaan, CT

I've visited many house museums. They've always been a favorite on our trips. And then on my birthday in March I'd drag the family to something nearby. But truth is, its hard to find house museums open in early March.

In theory I don't have to actively visit homes for quite some time. I've got lots of reviews, if not pictures, stored in my memory. Here's one that you may not think of in the category of house museums- a modern home built by Philip Johnson, the Glass House.


Architect Philip Johnson knew he had something special here and he passed it on to histories protectorate long before he moved on. In 1986 he bequeathed the property, 46 acres, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, with the stipulation that he could live there until his death, which as it turned out was not until some 19 years later.

I visited the home on a perfect sunny summer day- warm but not too much so with a beautiful breeze. Sitting at the tables on the lawn just outside the side door I relaxed while overlooking the miniature turret and pond.

Our guide dressed all in white had a passion for the modernist homes of New Canaan designed by the Harvard five, Marcel Breur,Landis Gores,John Johansen,Philip Johnson,and Eliot Noyes.

I'm not sure what I expected. I knew there'd be a glass house. But there's not simply a totally inventive house on the property. There's 6 buildings- 4 of which we toured. Wait you really should count the gate at the entrance to the property as a structure. So make it 7. The gate is massive, imposing and medieval like but modernist in spirit and design. It signals that you've crossed over into a consuming experience.

When Johnson purchased the property in the late 1940's he envisioned the whole of the land his home. How could he have seen through the forest to the curve of the land that would yield itself to multiple levels on which to plant fascinating structures and foliage. But here in 2008 my eyes wondered down the hillside to the wild turkeys shading themselves under the tree canopy and to the round shimmering pool with a concrete rectangular border that mimicked the house 50 feet away, and then to the bunker that transformed itself into an art museum.

While everyone on the tour was fascinated, eager to search out and discuss every nook and cranny, it seems Mr Johnson's neighbors hadn't always felt the same. The property is surrounded by a stone wall. In Fairfield County, CT this is common but this one is particularly high. And the story or is it legend has it that Mr Johnson added to the height because his neighbors complained they'd seen him naked too many times.

Tickets to the Glass House are hard to come by. They go on sale once or twice a year and sell out within a day or two. I registered on their website; was notified of the upcoming sale and sat at my computer as the clock clicked down the minutes to sale time. It was worth it.

Biltmore Hotel

Phoenix, AZ

OK no way is this a house museum. I know that. But Frank Lloyd Wright's influence is obvious and in this 80th anniversary year they do offer hour long tours so we went on our first hotel tour.

I hope this is a case of one picture being worth a thousand words. Either I'm too tired, my notes are terrible or very little of interest was said. Let's go with the first two. I remember being very interested during the tour.

One thing I do remember is finding my husband's birthday gift. Displayed in a case near the Wright bar was a selection of pre-embargo Cuban cigars, a rare find. The price for one cigar ranged from $135 to ten times that. The choice was easy.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Wrigley Mansion

Phoenix, AZ

The living room and adjoining sun room of the Wrigley Mansion are perfect for a small wedding while the bar and patio host a weekly wine tasting. Dinner is served from 5 to 9 PM in the main dining room which is at times also used for corporate functions.

The tour of this house was equal parts architectural or historical nuggets and sales promotion. This seems entirely appropriate given that that the mansion was built by William Wrigley, the consummate salesman and marketer.

The Wrigley mansion was built in the late 1920's as an anniversary present for William Wrigley's wife Ada. The mansion which sits atop a 100-foot knoll has Spanish, mission and Italian influences. It was one of 5 homes owned by the Wrigley's. While the family held onto the home until the 1970's William spent only one night there. He died at the mansion that night of "acute indigestion, complicated by apoplexy and heart disease".

The Wrigley name is no doubt known by you. If you're a baby boomer you can't forget the twins who promised you'd double your pleasure, double your fun with Doublemint gum. And while I'm not a baseball fan I have heard of Wrigley Field in Chicago.

The William Wrigley Jr company originally sold soap and baking powder. As a marketing gimmick gum was added to each package. The gum became the more prized product and the company changed its focus to confections.

Another cleaver marketing strategy was to give 4 sticks of gum to every household in the phone book. I was struck by the enormity of this, then stepped back and realized that in the early 1900's there were a lot fewer people with phones.

During the first world war Wrigley lobbied to have gum declared a war necessity and included in the K pack. His success lead to production shortages necessitating its removal from the public market. Wrigley continued advertising with the slogan "remember this wrapper".

One of the most beautiful features of the home is the Catalina tile used in the 8 bathrooms and numerous fireplaces. The tile was manufactured on Catalina Island which was owned by Wrigley.

In another instance of combining his businesses, Wrigley papered the small telephone switchboard room of the Phoenix mansion with the tin foil used to wrap Wrigley gum. The results were odd but interesting.

Wrigley was among the original investors in the Arizona Biltmore hotel. And when the stock market collapsed in 1929 he became the sole owner. While in Phoenix consulting on the Biltmore, Frank Lloyd Wright expressed his dislike of the Wrigley Mansion. His objections started with the siting of the mansion atop a hill.

While I didn't appreciate the sales promotion aspect of the tour I did enjoy seeing the home. And its easy to visit it and the Biltmore Hotel at the same time. They're probably less than a mile from one another. We spent a pleasant sunny afternoon touring the two.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Taliesin West

Home, Studio and School of
Frank Lloyd Wright

It feels too early to be posting about a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home.I should be getting my pencil sharpened with posts on more obscure sites, the Gelb House, the Osborne Homestead Museum, the Elizabeth Cady Stanton home. I've got something to say about all those but you'll have to wait.

I take advantage of an opportunity when it comes my way and Bob had a conference in Scottsdale, AZ and asked me to join him. My travel preparations always start with a google search for house museums. When I turned up Taliesin West, I booked a plane fight without hesitation.

The second item on my prep list for travel is finding a good book. And this time the synergy between the first and second items on the list was obvious. T C Boyle has just written a new book of historical fiction about Wright and the women who loved him. Of course that would be a perfect companion piece for my visit to Taliesin and an enjoyable way to spend vacation time.

I've loved the book and learned so much about Wright, his life, his design philosophy and the operations of his architectural school. But you know the thing about historical fiction is you just can't be sure what is truth and what is fiction! And as much as you're enjoying yourself while reading,later that always seems to rub at you a little.

On my first morning in Scottsdale I hurried out to Taliesin. As I approached the estate, I was stunned to see a line of electrical power towers that ran for miles. I found myself thinking that it was a good thing the famous architect hadn't seen these. But I later learned that he had and in fact had fought to have them buried or moved but lost. In response to their construction Wright changed the orientation of Taliesin's living room stating there was no longer a reason to look out over the valley. In fact Wright, the perfectionist, had 3 easements on the property- the towers, a 4 lane highway and waterway.

I soon learned that my tour guide, Ben, was well informed and witty with a comedians sense of timing. He explained that Wright's philosophy of living with nature also meant that nature lives with you and then coolly listed 20-30 indigenous insects, spiders, scorpions, and rodents that I want nothing to do with. Perhaps the worst was the kangaroo rat that Ben himself encountered at close range.

Taliesin is so much more than a home, more than a house museum. It was designed to be used as Wright's home, studio, and architectural school. The school is still in operation with 10 undergraduate and 10 graduate students in residence. And it continues to follow some of the unusual practices that Wright instituted - students living in tent structures, rotating communal food preparation and service, winters in Arizona and summers back in Wisconsin at the original Taliesin.

An unusual aspect of the tour is that you're encouraged to sit down in the studio, in the living room,and in the music hall. All of the original furniture has been replaced with reproductions. Forgetting for a moment that we were prohibited from taking pictures inside the house I snapped a few. Here's a good view of the living room.

Wright was an interior designer as well as an architect. He not only perfected the design of the home/building but everything that went into it. The cushion topped stools in the living room at first glance are nice but check out the angle of the base and then the little ball feet. They're something spectacular. (Click on the picture above to see it enlarged.)

In a department store basement Wright found a shipment of oriental tile scenes that had broken into small pieces. He bought the lot, brought it back to Taliesin, and instructed an apprentice to piece them together. After 3 years, the assignment was complete. Wright used the sculptures throughout Taliesin to draw your attention to important aspects of his design.

We weren't permitted to enter the 200 foot drafting room but we could peek in through the window. Now take a look at the picture I took. Yes that's my reflection at the bottom but that's not what I wanted you to see. Look up just a little. Doesn't that look like Frank Lloyd Wright's head? Once I'd ruled out any possibility of a ghost sighting, I settled on the probable explaination of a grandson or such.

Taliesin is the third building designed by Wright that I've been in. The first and one of his most notable is Fallingwater outside of Pittsburgh. And then, of course, the Guggenheim Museum in NYC.

Now there's something to put in your appointment book. The Guggenheim is celebrating its 50th anniversary this spring. Part of the celebration is an exhibit of 200 original Wright drawings. The exhibit runs from May 15 to August 23.

Even more fun would be to rent a Wright designed home and live there for a few days, a week. Yes you can really do this! A NY Times article by Barbara Ireland entitled Overnight with Frank Lloyd Wright published on 3/2/08 describes the authors enchanted weekend in a Wright designed home moved to Western Pennsylvania. The conclusion of the article lists 6 homes and contact information for them. There's something to put on my to do list. I think I'll remove clean the garage, wash the deck furniture and buy a new hallway rug and replace them with an overnight visit to a Wright home.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Mount

Edith Wharton's Estate and Gardens
Stockbridge, MA

To prepare for our Berkshire trip I spent time searching the web for anything related to area house museums. Search results quickly lead to The Mount, the home of Pulitzer Prize winning author Edith Wharton. Information on the home proclaimed dire warnings of immediate foreclosure if financial problems were not favorably concluded. This infused the prospective visit with tension and a sense of urgency.

Many historic house museums do not take advance reservations and in my experience they certainly aren't necessary. House museums seem to be about as popular with the general public as small independent films, another interest of mine. But given our short window of opportunity I emailed the museum staff and reserved a tour time.

In order to assure ourselves enough time we dedicated the morning of our departure day to the tour. How wise this proved to be. Before even entering the mansion, the stable and gardens demand attention. The massive stable building with its high ceilings and multiple rooms has both a short introductory film offered in an auditorium type setting and a pictorial history of the home and its occupants.

There's a maple-lined walk up to the Mount and formal gardens are set behind it as you approach. The gardens were still in bloom when we visited but the bees warned against any particularly close inspection.

The house is designed so that as you approach you cannot view its beauty from afar but must enter the relatively small forecourt to gaze up at the four-story house. Two curved courtyard walls creating a small intimate entrance to the home embrace the front. Photographs you may see of the home on their website or in books that show the hill and gardens leading up to the house are of rear or side views. Any of these views are worth a picture.

The rooms in The Mount could have been used on the 1993 movie set of The Age of Innocence, a movie based on Edith Wharton's novel. While she designed the gallery to display her collection of objects d'art from her travels, every room has a feast of treasures for our eyes. Her boudoir is the most elaborately decorated room on the bedroom floor. But she did most of her writing from bed in the adjoining bedroom. You can glimpse back into the household management functions of the home by touring the service wing.

A recent view of the website showed some progress in attaining financial stability for the property and alluded to a new and exciting vision for The Mount. "While we will of continue to honor Edith Wharton and her significant contributions to literature, architecture, interior design and gardening, our goal is to expand our mission to encompass celebrating the literary arts in all their forms." What might that mean?

To support the home I recommend you visit but if that's not possible make a donation on line by going to

Ventford Hall

Lenox, MA

In the beginning I planned to write a book called "The Guide Book" about tour guides that I encountered. But as the idea took shape the guides were placed along the sideline. That is until I visited Ventford Hall in Lenox, MA. For now they're delightfully front and center again.

Maybe that's because my guide that day was so much more entertaining than the house itself. Ventford Hall, an Elizabethan Revival house, is dark and brooding. Don't trust me on that? Hollywood talent scouts also found it so. The house served as the orphanage in the 1998 Academy Award winning Cider House Rules with Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Michael C
aine. And while the film crews spent substantial time and money on rehabbing the mansion, there's no getting around that dark, brooding feeling both inside and out.

at is unless Lavinia C Meeks is your guide. Lavinia's been a guide at the Hall for 10 years. But if your tour group is as nice as mine she's happy to take the time to answer your persistent questions and pose for a photo by the south porch or piazza, as they like to call it.

It's not that the house or the people who lived in it aren't interesting. Tales related to the house incl
ude cousin marrying cousin, middle son returning home from world travel with his former geisha Japanese wife, ties to the Lusitania sunk by the Germans in 1915, the construction of a bowling alley underneath the fully furnished south piazza, and the thought of big money attached to the historic Morgan financial family.

My group didn't stay for the "picnic on the porch" or Victorian Tea but followed Walker Street a shor
t distance back into town. After scanning the abundant restaurant choices we were rewarded with a window table and a tasty lunch at the Alta Restaurant and Wine Bar. Following lunch, with two house museums under our belts, we were off to the shops.



I thought of sitting down and slogging my way through instruction manuals, or trial and error starts at the computer. But wasn't there a more fun way to get started with my idea of writing a blog about my visits to house museums? One that echoed the theme of my new email address: playing at life.

That's where my auto accident came into the picture. Last year a 94 year old man while "thinking of his wife" drove threw a stop sign and hit my car. Luckily after a little physical therapy and some acupuncture I was fine. His insurance company acknowledged their client's error and offered a modest settlement. I negotiated (quite well I think) and accepted a revised and still modest offer.

What to do with the money??? A couple of friends liked the idea of a 3-day girls trip to the Berkshires and thought exploring house museums might be an interesting activity.

A little web research turned up 4 house museums within 15 minutes of one another. A little more research and I found a two bedroom, two bath time share right in the middle of things. So with the auto accident settlement in my pocket, my friends and I headed up to Stockbridge and Lenox, Massachusetts.

After stopping in Stockbridge for lunch, (something I'd think twice about - there aren't many restaurants to choose from in the little town) we sped off to a 2 P.M. tour of Naumkeag. Strange name, isn't it? Learned that it means haven of peace in the Essex Indian language.

Assured by the attendant that the beginning of the tour would be heralded by a strike on the oriental gong, we walked off to tour the garden. The grounds were stunning. A self-guided landscape tour points out 17 stops and an accompanying audio briefly and interestingly provides details on the landscape architect and his collaboration with Miss Mabel Choate, the daughter of the original owner.

As I stood at the top of the Blue Steps that gave Miss Choate easy access to the cutting garden at the base of the hill, I thankfully threw off my first impulse to head back up to the house. I later learned the Blue Steps are the "signature garden" of the estate and are quite ready for 1940 art deco movie set. But to be appreciated the steps have to be descended.

However we did spend a few too many minutes there. As we approached the veranda I could hear the tour guide talking about the family who had built the house. Houses and their families, not landscaping, is my real passion. What interesting crumbs of information had he already dropped?

Not to worry. He'd only just begun. From the tour and guide book I learned that the family had money, some degree of fame, luxury and tragedy. The father, Joseph Choate was a New York attorney who prosecuted Boss Tweed, won the case against the graduated income tax , and worked both for and against Standard Oil.

Side note here. Nothing to do with house museums. You might be wondering why we're about to pay income tax on April 15th since Attny Choate won the case against it way back when. Google "history of graduated income tax". There are over 1 million results. In less than a page Infoplease satisfied my curiosity.

Back to the topic.

Our tour guide was informed and engaging. And the gilded age shingle style summer home was memorable, a comfortable luxurious home in an early 1900's sense. But I wanted a little more, something just for me. What if I divulged my yet unwritten blog to the tour guide? Would I be granted VIP status or given access as a credentialed reporter might be?

As I approached the guide my friends wondered off toward the main entrance. I related my blog idea and then took a step back to explain what a blog is. He beckoned me with" come here I want to show you something". OK that's easy.

What awaits me? Maybe a painting we hadn't stopped at, maybe some kids initials carved into the handsome woodwork, maybe an opportunity to touch something old and incredibly valuable that is always off limits on the tours. He lead me down a long hall, and we then descended stairs with a railing made of ordinary inexpensive rope. Down into the darkness of ........the basement.

Bells started going off in my head. How far away were my friends? Had I read this guy wrong? We walked further into the the dark musty rooms. This didn't seem like a good idea. I offered a slight objection- "where are we going?" No response. And then just two rooms further into the maze..."This is the original kitchen. It's not rehabilitated at the moment but if you come back next summer it will be completed and part of the tour."

The kitchen! That's sometimes my favorite room. My blog, as of then unwritten, had opened up another view of the home and an entry to further discussion with the guide.